February 2005

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

Save Yourself

Every once in a while, a work of fiction comes along that makes us really think about what it means to be a woman. Jane Eyre. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even Bridget Jones's Diary did its part by speaking to a certain demographic of women and, in speaking to them, spoke for them. All are enjoyable, readable, influential books by women, reflecting on what being a woman means to them in their time and place. With the proliferation of chick lit, brought on by Bridget, there seems to be a race to be the next author to go down in infamy, having written the next book that will change how women are represented in pop culture. Despite its effort in the runnings, Save Yourself is not this book.

Save Yourself is Merin Wexler's collection of short stories concentrating on the roles women occupy throughout their lives. Divided into three sections -- "Mothers," "Daughters," and "Wives" -- the stories are categorized based on their narrative point of view. "Mothers" features "Porno Girl," the story of a woman who, after giving birth, can no longer view herself as sexual with her husband, choosing instead to arouse herself by viewing twenty-five cent peep shows. "Waiting for Electricity" reveals the feelings of a girl who is having an affair with her employer, or, more aptly put, the father of the child she babysits. And in "Solomon's Wives," a woman eschews creating a child with her husband for an affair with an elderly man who attends the art class she teaches. With five stories making "Daughters" the largest section, the book is a short, easy to read reflection on these three categories.

Wexler's idea to group her stories under these labels is an ambitious one, one that should be done with only the greatest confidence. These categories are extremely fluid and many women simultaneously occupy all three at some point in their lives. Nothing is really binding the stories to their categories, which may have been Wexler's point, that the categories are so fluctuating and that women can be either of these three at any time, but it's only giving the author the benefit of the doubt to ascribe this meaning to the structure of her book. Instead, the fuzziness between the boundaries that Wexler arbitrarily assigned to her writing only serves to weaken a book that forces readers to consider its content in these categories from the beginning.

Independent of the book's structure, the stories themselves are okay. But only okay. Giant themes loom throughout many of the pieces, as if the author wanted to be sure her stories meant something. There is the mother in denial about the end of her marriage, constantly putting off telling her son the news out of dread that the action would make it real. There is the wife who fears loss of control in her marriage, leading her to the brink of an affair with an ex. And there is the envy that runs through many of the characters' hearts: a teacher's envy of her students' beauty and youth, a mother's envy of her daughter's connection with their nanny, and a girl's belief that a neighboring family is far more perfect than her own could ever be. Not that there's anything wrong with using themes to drive a story forward, but in the absence of interesting storytelling -- as many of these stories just aren't all that remarkable -- and especially here where there already exists the over-arching connection of Mothers, Daughters, and Wives between the stories, employing such grand themes comes off as a cheap way of infusing the writing with undue worth.

Ultimately, there just isn't anything new or inventive in Save Yourself. Wexler doesn't say anything that isn't already known about women and the perspective that she takes, as dividing up women's roles, is played out. It's been done before and it's been done better -- I'd personally pick up some Alice Munro instead. Wexler's writing lacks in imagination, going so far as to describe a girl's seducer as a "snake charmer" and the girl as "ready to be entranced." The transparency of the writing is what's to be expected from a high school creative writing class -- immature, full of the need to express something big, and failing to focus on just being good writing. It's difficult to find the author's point in many of the stories and the lack of cohesion amongst them provides the feeling that perhaps these stories existed and were placed in their categories at a later date, as a matter of convenience to an otherwise scattered book. And maybe that's the problem -- that a book written for and about women treats their categorical roles in life as merely an afterthought.

Save Yourself by Merin Wexler
Picador
ISBN: 0312423918
225 pages